Friday, 22 June 2012

Get Some

I didn't really know what I was getting into when I bought Generation Kill. It was on sale for cheap, I'd heard good things, I'd seen some production stills. It sat on my shelves for ages, before I finally got around to watching the first episode. And even then it didn't grab me; I watched the first episode, then left it there for a while.

Eventually, I tried again, because the rumours persisted and I kept reading stuff about how good it was. I figured it was something I should watch, even though I'm not really a fan of war movies at all.

Once I got a few episodes in, I was hooked. The series is based on a book written by a Rolling Stone reporter who was embedded for two months with First Recon Marines during the first wave of the American-led assault on Baghdad in 2003. It first screened in 2008, with seven 70-minute-long episodes showing a warts-and-all depiction of military life in an active war zone.

This show, seriously. I've watched it through about three times. The superior production values, the dialogue, the action. The cast is amazing, and the show features great performances from Lee Tergensen, James Ransone (I'm actively looking for other stuff he's been in, now, he was that good), Alexander Skarsgaard, Stark Sands and Jon Huertas.

"You know what happens when you get out of the
Marine Corps? You get your brains back." - Person
Tergensen plays the Reporter, embedded in the lead vehicle of Bravo Platoon with Brad Colbert (Skarsgaard) and Ray Person (Ransone). Colbert is the infamous Iceman, the platoon's point man, and Person is his amphetamine-fuelled, motor-mouthed driver. Sands (who's in the Green Day show on Broadway these days) plays Nate Fick, the platoon's lieutenant (the head of the platoon). He's a Marine dedicated to protecting the lives and living conditions of his men, often butting heads with his superiors to do so. (The real Nate Fick wrote his own book, which I've heard is an excellent read.) Huertas is Antony 'Poke' Espera, Colbert's 2IC and leader of the second vehicle, a former ghetto car repo man with a very interesting perspective on war and his role in it. There's also a multitude of other characters, from enlisted Marines to military command, all well-cast, all excellently played. Overall, the series gives a very clear picture of how many personalities and egos make up a platoon, the different ways they clash, and the ways different men are affected by conflict and death.

One of the very first things I noticed about it was the production values. (Well, no, that's a lie. The first thing I noticed was the amazing dialogue and foul language. But more on that later.) As far as I can tell, every single person working on this show was unbelievably committed to making the sets, props, effects, everything, as realistic as possible. I'll admit, I've never been in a war or to Iraq, so maybe I'm easily fooled, but wow. This series has an almost documentary feel to it.

Being an HBO series, Generation Kill doesn't flinch from the brutal details when depicting the complexities of the Iraq war zone. While, overall, the Marines encounter perhaps less actual fighting that I had expected, there are still graphic scenes of blood and bodies, including the aftermath of American bombs on civilian areas and the bodies left by the side of the road by either retreating Iraqi forces or invading American ones. The Marines aren't constantly under attack or attacking, but every scene reminds the viewer where they are and what they're doing, and, occasionally, how impossible it would be for them to keep their hands clean even if they wanted to. For example, in one scene Colbert's vehicle is leading the platoon through an area that's seen recent fighting and they come upon a severed head in the middle of the road. He instructs Person not to run it over, but in avoiding the head Person accidentally runs over the body it used to be attached to. Accidental civilian deaths are also an ongoing problem for the Marines, and the rate these occur seems fairly accurate from what I've heard of the US invasion.

"People been fighting over this bitch since ancient times, Dog.
How many graves we standing on? Think about all the wisdom
 and science and money and civilization it took to build these
machines, and the courage of all the men who came here, and
 the love of their wives and children that was in their hearts.
And all that hate, Dog. All the hate it took to blow these
motherfuckers away. It's destiny, Dog.  White man's
gotta rule the world." - Espera
In fact, a key theme running through this series is the actual, unglamorous consequences of the war. More than any other war-related show or text I've ever encountered, there's a stark lack of romanticism to the way war is depicted here. There are no sentimental scenes of waving flags or liberation, and the Marines themselves aren't even sentimental about what they're doing, or overly patriotic. Most of them don't seem to care too much why they're there. They're doing their jobs and they're keen to kill because it's what they trained for. It's an interesting contrast to the stereotypical 'dying for our freedom' armed forces rhetoric that seems to come out of the US.

And while there's a lot going on in terms of the overarching invasion, from battle strategy to clashing commands, it's balanced by an extremely close-up and personal view of how these soldiers live. Sure, they complete tactical maneuvers, they shoot people, they do recon so air support can bomb out the Iraqi military. They're invading a country. But they also talk about their families, they get bored, they bitch about supplies, they behave like frat-boy morons. And every Marine in the platoon seems to sing on long drives, it's kind of fascinating.

Now, the other thing that caught my attention was the language. Oh, the language. Another aspect of HBO's unflinching attitude towards the US TV censors is their appreciation for dirty words. Just like the infamous use of the c-word in Deadwood, Generation Kill is scripted so these Marines talk exactly like Marines would talk - swear words aplenty, racism, homophobia, and a complete lack of interest in political correctness or sensitivity. They've also got a whole lexicon of their own, in the nicknames they give each other, and descriptors and phrases that only fellow Marines would understand. (Luckily, someone's gone through the series and the book, and laid out a glossary of Generation Kill-specific terms.) The show is practically worth watching for the dialogue alone.

The book the series is based on, Generation Kill by Evan Wright, was released in 2004, and is a damn interesting read. I read it because I enjoyed the series so much, and while the series is a really excellent adaptation, the book did provide extra background and a more complete picture of the people involved. The war itself was also better described in the book; while the viewer receives about the same amount of military intel that the soldiers seem to receive, the book provides a more complex picture of the military strategies the soldiers are participating in. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, but if so, it's effective in conveying the relative big-picture blindness the marines are operating under. A key piece of context provided in the book, though,  is that First Recon, as Recon Marines, are actually trained to parachute or swim behind enemy lines for tactical reasons; driving in humvees through enemy lines as an assault force is outside their usual operation. They are elite even within the marines, an already elite force within the navy. These things are alluded to in the show, but not made completely explicit.

Even so, the overall verdict from me is that even if you don't like war shows, if you like good TV you'll like Generation Kill. It has fantastic production, great casting, great dialogue, and a fascinating story.

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